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On the road, again

Geert Mak’s journey through America, which captures a nation in decline

Simon Willis | November/December 2014

ENGLISH TITLE In America
AUTHOR Geert Mak
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE Dutch 
TRANSLATOR Liz Waters 

In 1960 John Steinbeck—with the Nobel prize ahead of him but his best work long behind—went on a road trip with his dog. He drove through America from his home in Sag Harbour, hoping to take the temperature of the country and prove that he wasn’t washed up. The result was a bestseller, “Travels with Charley”, published in 1962.

Fifty years later, the Dutch journalist Geert Mak followed in his tracks to see what had changed. Not with his dog but his wife, he traced the same giant circle: north through Vermont and New Hampshire, then out past the Great Lakes, through the Midwest, down the west coast and back through the Deep South. His book—brisk and direct on the page—mixes travelogue, history and reportage, and paints a picture of American decline. In Mars Hill, Maine, he chats with locals about the latest census figures, which show the bottom 20% earning only 3% of the money, and 11m on food stamps. He sees Detroit as a “post-modern Chernobyl”, and amid “oceans of maize” the small towns of Minnesota are “stone dead”. In California he derides the education system: in 2011 roughly half as much was spent on colleges as prisons. The States, he says, are like the divided Europe, complaining about Washington “as Europeans do about Brussels”.

His trips through American turning-points—from the settlers to the Iraq war—sometimes make for a feeling of mission creep. They are often written to undercut American exceptionalism, and betray a pretty standard set of liberal European gripes. He’s at his best when giving a vivid view from the roads less travelled. As one man in Wisconsin says, “Nobody ever comes to this town!” ~ Simon Willis 

Harvill Secker, November 20th

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